Wherever You Go, There You Are
I’m not sure where to begin. I'm sitting in an
air-conditioned room in Chiang Mai right now. I am under a light
blanket, with a bag of snacks at my feet and my abandoned drawing pad
and pencils to my right. I have all the time in the world. And it could freak me out if I let it.
I came face to face with my general unease about life during the twenty-six days that I practiced vipassana at the temple here in Chiang Mai. Actually, my denial slammed forehead-first into a brick wall the morning I finally left. Let me back up.
For the last year or two, all I wanted to do was leave Seattle. Save a bunch of money, finish school, quit bartending, leave.
Vacation. I have been looking forward to this time away for so long
now. The desire to leave got stronger with each passing day. Just as soon as I get on that plane, I would think, I will totally relax. I just knew I would. I would settle into the seat, put my headphones on, and all of my worries would melt away. Gone.
I finally got on that plane and I still wasn’t happy. Now I just wanted to get to Bangkok. As soon as I land and get through customs, I thought, it will be all good. That hot air will hit my face, and I’ll know I’ve arrived. No such luck. As soon as that hot air hit my face, I was looking for a taxi. Because as soon as I got to Khao San road, I could put down my bag, take a shower, and get a massage.
But once I did those things, I just wanted to hurry up and get down south. Getting to the beach, I thought, will do it. I’ll be perfect once I get on the beach. White sand, time to write, waves lapping the shore. Perfect. But…
surprise! Once I got to the beach, all I wanted to do was get up
north. Because the monastery was up north, of course, and once I was
there, I would get all the answers. Easy. I just had to get into the
monastery. It didn’t occur to me yet that this was a cycle.
When I finally got to the monastery, I was uneasy. Spending
twelve hours a day really looking at yourself and your experience is
not an easy thing to do. Sometimes you do have divine
experiences. Sometimes it is squeamishly uncomfortable. I remember
saying to my sister when we were still on the beach, "Just as soon as I
get into the monastery, I know I’m going to sink down into that first
sitting meditation and feel so good. All that stress and worry is
going to slide away.” Wrong. Once I slipped down into that first sitting meditation, I kept picturing the timer around my neck. When is it gonna go off? I kept thinking. How long do you think it’s been? Ten minutes? What does ten minutes feel like? No, I bet it’s been closer to fifteen.
As the days went on, and the hours I was assigned to meditate grew
longer, the angst grew. I started meditating in twenty minute
increments, first walking, then sitting, and practicing six hours a
day. This steadily increased until I was meditating in hour-long
increments, twelve hours a day.
I remember one of the worst meditations ever. I was walking at night. It was dark out, and I was walking slowly, slowly, slowly, back and forth at the rear of the chanting hall. There was a little bit of light, so I wasn’t teetering too badly. It was difficult walking though, and I was tired. I just wanted to get back to my room and lie down. But I had only just begun, so I knew I had nearly an hour left. Heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing… Six-step walking takes a long time. And my obsessive thinking was making it worse. My mind kept shooting to the timer around my neck, the black one that hung from the yellow cord. I imagined it ticking down… Was it at fifty minutes yet? Forty-five? How long did I have? Walking, walking, walking. Shoot back to the timer. How much time had passed? Wait, I hadn’t even taken another full step yet…. Lowering… touching… placing… Shoot back to the timer… How long now?
It was during that meditation that I saw what was happening very
clearly. I imagined this little man inside of me. He was at the
bottom of a deep well. Carved on the walls of that well were the
scriptures of Buddhism. All life is suffering. To escape suffering, one must recognize the truth of non-self. Everything is impermanent.
This little man had only to read the scriptures on the walls and he
would be set free. He could dig his little hands into the carvings,
and crawl out. At the top of the well, spread out in all directions,
were the greenest, most lush fields you could imagine. Colorful
gardens were filled with perfumed flowers that reached for the blue,
blue sky, and the whole thing was hemmed in on every side by kind,
gentle mountains. Smiling people tilled the fields and waved at one
another, slanting Asian hats on their heads. Over these fields, you
could fly. You could dip and glide, twisting up into the air in a
whirl and floating gently down. You could even fly over the mountains,
to the endless, gorgeous lands beyond. Just above this well was
liberation. Enlightenment. Presence.
And yet the little man kept banging his head. Every time I would think about the timer, he would furiously beat his head against the stone walls. His forehead was ravaged, bleeding. He was blindly banging away, with no idea that there was a world above him. He didn’t even know he was hurting himself. His pain corresponded to a physical pain in my torso every time I would think about the timer. A pang would go through my chest and stomach. And I would watch the little man beat his head ruthlessly again, his scraped and bloodied hands holding him up against the wall as he did so. It was pretty brutal. This went on for awhile. Just because you see a negative pattern, it does not mean that you instantly know how to change it. I watched him beating the hell out of his head for the better part of an hour, and my stomach hurt worse and worse.
Finally, a voice started whispering to him (Was it my voice? I’m not sure). It said, Honey, you can stop banging your head now. Shhhhh…. Be quiet… Just listen... Just breathe. The little man looked up, disconcerted. Had he heard something? His hair was hanging in his eyes, disheveled and matted with blood. I thought of the timer, and watched him go straight back to the wall, pressing his hands against it for support and beginning to bang again. He had found a particularly sharp piece of stone jutting out, and he was enjoying slamming the open wound on his forehead into this sharp stone. Bam, bam, bam! He slammed. Bam, bam, bam! Then he stumbled back, dazed.
Shhhh…. the voice said again. Can you listen for a moment? Just listen. I almost thought about the timer again, but checked myself. I watched him stumble up from where he had fallen to the ground and make his way to the wall. He weakly beat his head against it a few times, then looked up. It really did seem like he may have heard something. The voice continued. Honey, you don’t have to beat your head. There’s another way. His ear was cocked to the side now, and he had a curious expression on his bruised and bloodied face. Where was that voice coming from? My mind slipped to the timer and he returned to the wall and beat his head furiously, over and over, holding on and crying, frustrated sobs slipping out as he beat. Then he stumbled backwards again, his head in his hands, heaving with tears.
This went on for a long time. This went on for an hour. Actually, this had been going on all along, and continues to go on to a much weaker and less violent degree, but this particular bit of time where I watched the little man beat the hell out of his head went on for a solid hour. My stomach hurt and his head was unbelievably smashed. I couldn’t believe he was still alive. At some point that voice coaxed him (and myself) to slow down. All he had to do was sit down and breathe while I walked. All I had to do was walk slowly while he sat. Shhhh…. Fairly regularly though, I would think about the timer, and he would jump up and viciously beat his head again. Sometimes he would smash his shoulder against the wall for good measure, or bang the back of his skull against the stones for something different. He was bleeding everywhere. He really enjoyed that sharp piece of stone quite a bit. He liked to return to that and slam his wound into it so it went as deep as possible, ripping new flesh, inviting more blood.
I knew I was producing this gory visualization to show myself the futility of worrying about time. The bloodier it got, the better. I almost relished watching the little man crack a new line in his skull, seeing the fresh red blood pour out, following him as he stumbled backwards and fell. His trauma was always matched by a corresponding pain in my chest and stomach, a sharp, clenching feeling that I had trouble breathing around. The worse it got, the more deeply I understood the mess I was in. All I had to do was let go. Stop worrying about the time. It would pass. One day, this meditation would end. One day, I would get on a plane. One day, I would get to the beach. One day, I would make it to Chiang Mai. One day, I would get to the monastery. One day, I would finally be meditating! Oops! Here I was! And I was desperately trying to be somewhere else. And it was killing me, and it was killing the little man inside of me.
Later, when it seemed like I had been pacing back and forth for a very long time, I got into a dialogue with the little man. Hey buddy, I said. I’ll help you if you help me. We’ve gotta stop doing this. We’re both getting hurt. I said that, and there on the bricks where I walked ever so slowly… heel up… lifting… moving… lowering… touching… placing… He came out of my head and took my hand. We walked together, very slowly. It was a challenge for us both. I kept wanting to think about the timer. When is this going to be over? When can I go back to my room? It took a strong effort to curb it. I felt like a life-long, pack-a-day smoker who is trying to resist that delicious Marlboro Red sitting right over there on the counter. There was even a lighter next to it. It was ready to go. That stupid, stupid timer around my neck. And then, Bam, Bam, Bam! The little man was slamming his head again, and a sharp pain shot through my stomach. Ouch! Exhale. I would breathe again, lower my foot, touch the ground with my toe, lower my heel, and … invite the little man back out. We would hold hands again and walk on.
The little man became my symbol for what it is to always strive to
be somewhere you are not. His presence was never as clear or as strong
as it was on that night, thank goodness, but other images took his
place. He was replaced by a girl with a high fever, twisting in the
sheets. She was having a nightmare, and she was so thirsty, but she
couldn’t wake up. She would almost wake up… she would be lucid
for a moment, and her eyes would begin to open. But then she would
slip back into twisted dreams before the helper by the bed could get
any water into her mouth. The helper of course, was now, was
the present moment. Just be here now. It's so much easier. Stop
beating your head against the wall, or losing yourself in feverish
dreams, and just… wake up! That’s the business of Buddhism- helping us
to wake up. Wake up from this dream world, this world of illusions and
hallucinations, and realize that you are free! Yet waking up means
being present, and though a lucky few of us are able to be present
quite naturally, many of us are trapped in repetitive thought cycles
that exist in the past and the future. We are banging our heads. We
are twisting in the sheets.
Meditation makes all of this very clear. It puts your nose in the water, and makes you look very closely at the reflection. That’s why it can be incredibly uncomfortable. You are faced with inarguable truths. One day I’m going to be old and wrinkled. One day I’m going to die. One day you are going to die. One day, no one will ever remember who I was. I’m not really me, I’m just a body and a mind. Everything will always feel this bad if I keep avoiding it.
This is just the beginning, the difficult part of Buddhism to
grasp. It gets better. I remember a book I read this past autumn. It
described an insight meditation center in Burma. This center had monks
and nuns on hand specifically to run after the people who snapped at
this point in their meditations and left, vowing to never return. The
jobs of the monks and nuns was to follow the people into the city and
gently coax them to come back. The practitioners had hit one of the
hardest experiences that come with insight meditation, and if they
could get through it, it got a whole lot better. The pain gives way to
realizations. I have been reading about one realization for years, and
nodding my head over it enthusiastically. Be here now! Be present. Be mindful. Life only happens in the present moment.
It sounds great on paper, but trying to put it into practice is very
difficult. A life-long smoker does not necessarily quit overnight,
even if he sees the most horrifying, gory photo of what his habit is
doing to his lungs. It takes practice. What I saw was that the
writing is on the walls, and you can either bang your head against
them, or you can use them to climb out.
I continued banging my head, though not so violently. I kept telling myself, As soon as I get through Determination, I will feel amazing. Determination lasts for the final three nights and days of the retreat. You stay in your room (a very, very small room), and you walk and you sit, in hour long increments each, for seventy-two hours straight. You do not to sleep. You only leave once a day to report to the abbot and receive instructions for the following twenty-four hours. It can be exhilarating, it can be brutal, it can be… boring. One man I talked to on the last day summed up his Determination like this: On the first night, it was ecstasy. I was amazed by the littlest things, like opening a door, or turning on the water. On the second night, I wanted to die. I didn’t think I could go on. Every step was like torture. On the third night I balanced out. He said this as he sipped on his Thai iced tea, stabbing violently at the ice cubes with his straw. I felt so worn out at that point, I just nodded sympathetically.
I had finally gotten through Determination, the one experience I was sure would make me happy. Once I was done with Determination, I could do anything.
I would be flying. Life would be good. But I finished Determination,
and about an hour later I started crying, because all I wanted to do
was get out of the monastery. I wanted to get into the city, because
finally, in the city, I would be happy. I could get a massage, after
all, and eat some good food, and check my email. At that point,
however, sitting on my bed, head in my hands, I knew it was all a
façade. I saw the web I was trapped in. I knew I was
trapped. I had hit a wall, and my mind was still working overtime. It
was still planning the future. I saw the futility of that thinking,
and yet it went on. Tough.
I’ve been out in the city for a few days now. It feels… well, there is really no one word or ten words to sum up how it feels. It changes moment to moment. What I am trying to do is be present. Up until about two hours ago, I still had the training wheels firmly on. Everything I did, I noted. Tasting, tasting, tasting. Walking, walking, walking. Seeing, seeing, seeing. I didn’t want to lose track of the present moment, I was so afraid. I felt like a weak invalid, hobbling along on her walker. I cried on the first night. Then I meditated. Then I fell asleep. Breathing, breathing, breathing. Turning, turning, turning. Fear, fear, fear. I woke up noting. Opening, opening, opening eyes… seeing, seeing, seeing. Those constant words were a bridge to the present moment, a savior who kept me safe. I was afraid to let go.
A few hours ago, walking back from the vegetarian restaurant, I was being a diligent student again. Walking, walking, walking… Smelling, smelling, smelling… oh, the gorgeous smell of those orchids! Smiling, smiling, smiling… And then I heard that kinder, wiser voice say from somewhere inside of me, You know, honey, you don’t have to note everything. Maybe you could try taking a few steps on your own. If that voice had a face, she would have winked at me. I stubbornly refused though, my mind immediately beginning to race. Thinking, thinking, thinking… racing thoughts, racing thoughts, racing thoughts… Thanks a lot, Higher Self!
But then, after darting out across the busy
thoroughfare, I made it to Thae Pae Gate and started walking. I looked
at the sunset, at the pigeons scattered across the open pavilion. I
breathed in the warm evening air, and there was no voice marking every
step. I was just present for a moment. I trusted myself. Moments
later, as soon as my mind realized that the rider was coasting along on
the bicycle just fine without her, she threw on the training wheels in
a panic. Walking, walking, walking, she said in a tone that rebuked me for daring to walk without her. Seeing, seeing, seeing.
I allowed the voice to carry me home, and arrived in my hotel room with
a flourish. I put down my bag, turned around, switched on the lights,
and walked to the bathroom. All without a single word in my mind. I
just did it, and I was present while I did it. Not planning tomorrow.
Not figuring out what I needed to do as soon as I came out of the loo.
Writing is easy. I get lost in writing and I lose all track of time. I’m not planning what comes next, I am just focused, and I am doing. That is one reason why I love to write. Since I started writing this essay, I have not had a single worry about what comes next. No little man is tearing up his forehead, and my sweet stomach has had a break. No worries. Since finishing the twenty-six days in the monastery, I have this sense that a million little cracks have opened up in my psyche, mind, and body. Warm, yellow light is beginning to pour through. Presence, in teeny, tiny increments, is beginning to dawn. And presence is joy.
I still get scared all the time. I am alone in a hotel room in Chiang Mai. I have all the time in the world. What am I going to do with it? This experience I wanted so badly for so long… it turns out it's kind of scary. But it is the best thing in the world for me. I am learning to become present, and that is an indescribable gift. My happiness is nowhere but now. It is not situational. Not at all. That was just a lovely, gauzy film that I held up in front of my eyes for so long. I can be happy or miserable anywhere at all. The experience I always thought would instantly cure me and make me joyous, brought me pain when I got there and I found out I was still sad. Thailand, Determination, freedom! They all meant nothing if my heart and soul were not there to enjoy them.
So. It is nine thirty-three, and I am sitting all alone in
this room. It occurred to me a number of times in the monastery that
only two people in that whole place knew my name- the abbot and the
angel faced nun who translated for him. Ahhh… Sah-dah! he would say with a twinkle in his eye when I would shuffle in on my knees, new tears in my eyes. And how are you too-DAE?
His eyes would get huge, and he would lean forward with a smile,
peering at me over his glasses. Now that I’m out of the monastery, no
one knows my name. No one in this whole city knows who I am.
It's strange. Step by step, I keep telling myself. Be here now. The cracks appear and appear, growing bigger and letting in more light. I can't see this happening. It's invisible. It's all on faith. Be here now, says the voice, and I try.
Writing, writing, writing.